19 Jun 2019

No, the practice of abortion in Britain is not at odds with the law

Hot on the heels of PM-hopeful Jeremy Hunt stating he supports reducing the abortion upper time limit from 24 to 12 weeks, Ross Clark published an error filled anti-choice polemic in the Spectator magazine.

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Sian Norris NewsMavens, Europe
No, the practice of abortion in Britain is not at odds with the law - NewsMavens
Woman in waiting room. Pexels

According to the Spectator’s Ross Clark, the freedom for a woman to choose to end an unwanted pregnancy is at odds with the 1967 law. He claims there is no mandate for so-called “social abortion” in an article that misrepresents both British law, cultural attitudes, and the reality of women’s lives.


In an emotive comment piece for the Spectator, journalist Ross Clark claims that Britain is seeing an “abortion epidemic”, as:

“News comes through this morning of a big death toll: 200,000 over the past 12 months. What’s more, it has happened right under our noses – in Britain.”

He’s referring to the number of abortions that have taken place in Britain over the past 12 months, arguing that “200,000 human lives have been taken” which is something we will one day look back on “in absolute horror.

Clark takes issue with the way pro choice campaigners call a fetus a “cluster of cells”, saying it is “as strained a description of a 12 week fetus as it is of an adult.” He argues that:

“The only reasonable definition for the beginning of human life conception. To terminate a pregnancy at any point is to take a human life. It is, to put it bluntly, killing a person.”

He then goes on to discuss the legal basis for abortion in Britain (abortion is not legal in Northern Ireland), saying that:

“The practice of abortion is completely at odds with the 1967 law.”

He goes on say that the 1967 Act which allowed for safe and legal abortion under certain conditions was predicated on “protecting the mother from serious harm or on the grounds that there was serious risk the child would be born, in the language of the time, ‘severely handicapped’.”

We have not, Clark says, seen “200,000 pre-natal emergencies” in 12 months.

Clark bemoans that the country has never been “consulted on, and our representatives have never passed, a law allowing social abortion.” He claims it is hypocritical for the “strongest defenders of the rights of humans who have already been born” to advocate for a woman’s right to choose. He argues it’s a double standard that, while protecting safe and legal abortion, they also want “children to be brought up in decent conditions.”

He finishes by arguing that abortion should not be seen as an issue for “women’s rights”.


Abortion law is complicated in the UK. According to the Victorian era "Offences Against the Person Act", abortion remains criminalized and is punishable by life imprisonment. This remains the case in Northern Ireland, where abortion is completely banned except if the woman’s or girl’s life is in danger.

However, the 1967 Abortion Act allowed for terminations in specific circumstances in the rest of the UK.

First it demands that a woman or girl has the permission of two doctors who can affirm that continuing the pregnancy “would involve risk, greater than if the pregnancy were terminated, of injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman.” Second, the termination must take place in registered medical premises. This means that if, for example, a woman took an abortion pill at home, she would be liable for prosecution according to the Offences Against the Person Act. Third, it can only take place up to the 24th week of pregnancy (this was a change to the 1967 law, made in 1990).

No-where does the law talk about “harm” or “serious harm” as Clark suggests. Instead it talks about the “risk” of emotional or physical injury. Forcing a woman to continue with an unwanted pregnancy is clearly a risk to her emotional and physical health – not least because pregnancy and birth is a dangerous business. It certainly doesn’t claim that abortions should only be available in a “pre-natal emergency”.

The implementation of the law therefore reflects its wording.

Clark’s upset that the public has never been consulted on what he calls “social abortion” (more on that term later). This is a bizarre mischaracterization of the UK system. We have a Parliamentary democracy where we elect political representatives who, in turn, vote on laws on our behalf.

Unlike countries like Ireland, who have constitutions which require a public referendum for a law to be amended (as happened in the historic Repeal the 8th campaign to legalize abortion last year), the UK does not require a public vote to decide its laws. Even if it did, attitude surveys show overwhelming support for safe and legal abortion in the UK -- including in Northern Ireland where, as mentioned, women face life imprisonment for terminating an unwanted pregnancy.

Then there’s the term “social abortion” -- something which is completely meaningless. The law allows for women and girls to terminate an unwanted pregnancy that puts their mental or physical health at risk. There is no such thing as a “social abortion” which is simply a phrase designed to stigmatize women as feckless, fickle and irresponsible.

Clark believes those who support human rights while being pro choice are hypocrites and characterizes it as absurd that people who support safe, legal abortion also support the right of children to be brought up in decent conditions where they can fulfil their potential.

In doing so, he ignores the realities faced by many children who are born unwanted, or into countries where abortion is criminalized.

Romania is an informative example. When Ceausescu banned abortion and contraception in a horrific experiment designed to increase the country’s population, thousands of children were abandoned in terrifying conditions. The orphanage crisis that was revealed when the dictatorship collapsed still haunts the country -- as do the 10,000 women who died of clandestine abortions before the practice was legalized in 1990.

While of course many unplanned children grow up in loving households, research published in 2002 found that unwanted children “may be more subject to child abuse and neglect” and “parents may be more likely to maltreat unwanted children.” Other research found that children born after the mother was denied abortion had higher rates of hospitalization and delinquency.

This is not definitive and children born to parents denied abortion do grow up happy and healthy. And every family should be financially and practically supported to care for their child – something Clark seems less keen on advocating for. But if, as Clark claims, anti-choice campaigners believe every child should grow up to reach “their full potential, equal and free of discrimination”, then mothers have to have bodily autonomy.

Interestingly, Clark does not mention anywhere how some are attributing the recent rise in abortions to women feeling pressured into ending a pregnancy because of changes to the benefits system by the Conservative and Coalition governments since 2010.

These austerity-driven cuts have made it financially more challenging to raise a family -- particularly the cuts to child tax credits for families with more than two children (women who can prove a third child is born following a rape can claim tax credits for that child).

According to the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, “the two-child benefit cap was designed to influence reproductive decision-making and we are certainly aware of cases where that has been a factor in a woman's decision to end a third, unplanned pregnancy."

Instead of throwing around offensive terms like “social abortion”, Clark could perhaps advocate for a system that makes it financially viable for mothers to raise wanted children, instead of supporting a Party that has trashed the safety net for families.

Finally, Clark characterizes abortion as “killing a person” because, he claims, life begins at conception.

There is some debate about reducing the upper time limit from 24 weeks to reflect medical advances that means babies born premature have a better (although not good) chance of survival when born near this point. Pro choice campaigners resist reducing the time limit to 20 weeks – as voted on in Westminster in 2008 and recently promoted by former Conservative Vice Chair for Women Maria Caulfied -- because to do so ignores the reasons why a woman might require a late term abortion. These include discovering a fatal fetal abnormality, or the mother experiencing severe health issues.

There is no medical reason for reducing the time limit to 12 weeks, as supported by PM-hopeful Jeremy Hunt last week. And there is no justification for stating that life begins at conception, unless that is the decision of the woman or girl who is pregnant.

In all his hand-wringing about abortion “killing a person”, no where does Clark talk about the girls and women who have been killed where abortion is illegal.

He doesn’t mention the 10,000 women dead in Romania. He doesn’t mention Savita Halappanavar, who was denied reproductive healthcare in Ireland and died in October 2012. He doesn’t mention Dr George Tiller, assassinated while going to work in an abortion clinic in 2009.

In Argentina, which recently voted to maintain the law criminalizing abortion, 40 women die every year. In El Salvador, the epidemic isn’t abortion -- it’s teenage girls with unwanted pregnancies killing themselves. Those teenage deaths account for three eighths of maternal deaths in the country. That’s nearly half of all maternal deaths. Do these girls not count as people killed?

There is no mention of the millions of women who die following an unsafe abortion -- and those numbers are stark. Between 4.7% and 13.2% of maternal deaths worldwide can be attributed to unsafe abortions every year, or about 30,000 women dead. The British Medical Bulletin reported in 2003 that the global number was 70,000 women. This suggests a welcome decrease in deaths which would only go up again if Clark had his way.

At the launch of Diana Johnson’s bill to decriminalize abortion in the UK, the author of the 1967 law Lord Steel gave a short speech. He said that before the law was passed, women were arriving into hospitals sick and dying from botched unsafe abortions. The next day, he said, those deaths stopped.

Women died and are still dying from a lack of abortion services. Their lives should matter.


Contrary to Clark’s claims, abortion isn’t killing a person. Denying women a safe and legal abortion kills women.

This article is an example of disinformation, manipulation of facts, and pseudoscience that reflects the anti-feminist backlash.


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